In the essay “In Plato’s Cave”, Susan Sontag refers to the act of photography as a form of social rite for families. The photo that I have posted today is a perfect but slightly complex example of this idea. While the image itself, which is of my grandmother and my nephew, seems happy and carefree, there is actually an inherent aggression that I have come to associate with the photo, as well as others taken that day.
My brother Jack had my nephew when he was just graduating from college, and long story short, it was unplanned. Growing up in the suburbs, I learned many things about the nature of living in a small town, but after my nephew’s birth, none became more apparent than this: big news in a small town travels shockingly fast. We experienced the full scope of reactions from friends and family. My uncle, upon hearing from my mother that she was newly a grandmother, angrily blurted out “Which one was it!?”, referring to the question of whether my brother or I was the culprit. One of my best friends, a self-described “baby fanatic”, literally screamed with excitement at the idea of a new babysitting job. There was social pressure from people in my town for the parents to get married, for my brother to stay in a job he hated, and generally for the two involved families to define how Connor, our new addition, would be assimilated into our lives. It seemed almost comforting for people in our town to hear about the minute details of family life, such as “how many days do you see him?” and “will he be in the Christmas card?” These questions were always delicately asked and seemed inevitably to lead to bigger questions about marriage and the Connor’s future.
Of course, the holiday card question was something that we had not thought about. By the time Connor was born in May 2010, we were simply grateful that Jack had graduated from college on time and that the labor was comfortable for the mother, Bridgette. Normally, I would dismiss my mother anytime she asked me for my opinion on our holiday card. It was never something I considered important, just a shallow social rite and a way of establishing a family’s social status. However, after Connor was born, there was an unspoken feeling of anticipation for what image we were going to send out to friends and family. Of course, there was no question in our minds that Connor would be the focus of the image. However, I noticed that my mom, no matter how adamant she was about the inclusion of Connor, was incredibly anxious about how the image would be received.
We settled on an image of Connor right after he was born. This image, without any context, is a familiar one in holiday cards, with new families introducing their first child to their loved ones. For my family, however, there was something aggressive about this holiday greeting. Sending out this singular, unbiased photo to everyone we knew was almost a way of asserting that Connor was not just a part of our family, he was the most important part of our family. In this way, our holiday card was not only a social rite, but a “defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.”(p. 8) There was relief after the holiday season, and a feeling that acknowledging our situation through a photographic image gave us power. This year, our relief from getting over that first card and that first year has grown. The image that I have included in this post was taken by a family friend who offered to shoot our holiday card this past November, one year later. It expresses, unlike the previous year, a sense of fun and lightheartedness. I look at this image of Jack, my grandmother and Connor (as well as other photos taken that day) as a symbol of the complete merging of Connor, Bridgette and her family with our family, and a celebration of our ability to stop defending ourselves and start unabashedly enjoying our new family. It is just like any other photo in that it is a “narrowly selective transparency,”(p. 6), providing a small and deliberate slice of our lives. However, it is utterly true and audacious in tone, and having the courage to project such an honest image to those who may have reacted poorly to our situation has given us validation, and power over anyone who still disapproves.